Friday, May 26, 2017

The Abbé Aubain and Mosaics by Prosper Mérimée



Exotic tales of mystery and history
Prosper Mérimée
This collection of short stories by French author Prosper Mérimée was first published in English in 1903. The 12 stories it contains were originally published in French from 1829 to 1870. The title of the collection is a bit confusing. As one might expect, “The Abbé Aubain” is the title of one of Mérimée’s short stories. Mosaics, on the other hand is the title of a collection of short fiction by Mérimée published as Mosaïque in 1833. Half of the stories in this volume come from that collection. However, there are another five stories included here that have nothing to do with the Mosaics collection. That’s an important point to note because a few of these non-Mosaics stories happen to be among the best entries in the collection.

Mérimée is probably best known for his novella Carmen (not included here), upon which the opera of the same name, composed by Bizet, is based. Mérimée is a Romanticist in style. His stories often take place in exotic settings, which he depicts with encyclopedic cultural erudition. His stories frequently contain elements of horror, and at times approach the Gothic macabre atmosphere of Edgar Allen Poe. The English-language author that Mérimée’s stories most immediately call to mind, however, is the non-Sherlock Holmes work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as seen in such collections as Tales of Terror and Mystery. Both Conan Doyle and Mérimée had a fascination with mysticism and the occult, and both had a keen interest in antiquities, often basing a story of mystery and suspense around an ancient statue, vase, or curio. Mérimée was such a connoisseur of artifacts, in fact, that the French government made him inspector general of historical monuments.

To be honest, I wasn’t too impressed with this collection at first. “The Abbé Aubain” is an epistolary story that is engaging enough for most of its length, but then falters with an anticlimactic conclusion, a problem that’s not unique to this entry. While Mérimée proves himself quite adept at building atmosphere and suspense, too many of the stories suffer from weak and abrupt endings. For example, in “Mateo Falcone,” perhaps the most renowned story in this volume, Mérimée goes to great lengths to develop intriguing characters while capturing the essence of Corsican country life. The story builds to a powerful and shocking climax, but then in the snap of the fingers it’s done, almost as if to say, “So what?” Next up, “The Vision of Charles XI” offers a chillingly spooky scene, then fizzles to a halt with a matter-of-fact explanation of what it symbolizes. “The Game of Backgammon” deliberately deprives the reader of an ending, as if Mérimée is taunting us. The one story from among the Mosaics selections that’s truly outstanding is “Tamango,” a thrilling and tragic drama set aboard a slave ship.

Despite its rocky start, the book redeems itself in its second half with three ingenious first-class chillers, loaded with suspense and dripping with Romantic ambience, that represent Mérimée at his best. In “The Venus of Ille,” an archaeologist goes on a sketching trip through the French region of Roussillon. In “Lokis,” a particularly superb tale, a philologist travels to a Lithuanian castle to translate a biblical text into an obscure dialect. In “The ‘Viccolo’ of Madam Lucrezia,” a young Frenchman ventures to Rome, where he becomes intimately familiar with centuries-old legends of Lucrezia Borgia. All three meet with the strange and unexpected, as does the reader who chooses to follow them. Mérimée doesn’t score a hit when every story, but when he does, one gets an enchanting thrill ride through some offbeat and arcane corners of history and art.

Stories in this collection
The Abbé Aubain 
Mateo Falcone
The Vision of Charles XI 
How We Stormed the Fort
Tamango 
The Game of Backgammon
The Etruscan Vase 
The Venus of Ille
Lokis 
The Blue Chamber
The “Viccolo” of Madam Lucrezia 
Djoûmane

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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Essays Towards a Theory of Knowledge by Alexander Philip



“Towards,” perhaps, but never gets there
Essays Towards a Theory of Knowledge was originally published in 1915. The author, Alexander Philip, was a Scottish lawyer best known for his advocacy of calendar reform. Among other modifications to the Gregorian calendar, he proposed taking a day from August and adding it to February and permanently fixing the date of Easter. You may wonder how someone of Philip’s background would end up writing a philosophical treatise on the workings of the human mind. After reading his book, I’m still asking myself that question.

Essays Towards a Theory of Knowledge offers an in-depth investigation into epistemology, the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge. To what extent do our sense perceptions accurately represent reality? Is our faculty of reasoning entirely dependent on sense data or are we born with some form of innate knowledge? How do we judge the accuracy of our perceptions and thoughts? These concerns of epistemology are some of the questions that Philip addresses in this book. The fundamental dilemma of epistemology goes back to Plato and Aristotle, whose doctrines of idealism and empiricism, respectively, differed on whether we have an innate understanding of abstract concepts or whether all our knowledge is derived from sense data. Later philosophers have tried to reconcile these two opposing viewpoints, and here Philip puts his two cents in.

I hesitate to offer a summary of Philip’s argument because I must confess I really did not understand a great deal of it. His prose is written in such convoluted syntax, it is extremely difficult to follow his labyrinthine train of thought. The universe is made up of energy, which is constantly transmuting itself into different forms. So far, so good, if one thinks of matter as a form of potential energy. Not only do we perceive this universe of energy, we are a part of it. “It is only by a visual fiction that we come to regard our active selves as distinct from the dynamic system.” Philip goes to great lengths to emphasize that we experience reality not only with our senses but also through activity, exertion, dynamism. We form a conception of space by moving through it. “The laws of space, therefore, are laws, so to speak, of motion, not of position.” Philip draws heavily on Kant’s theory of a priori knowledge and on Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the Will. The way he states his case is so confusing, however, it is hard to tell exactly where he agrees or disagrees with them. Even the most fundamental aspects of Philip’s philosophy is vague. Throughout the entire book he seemed to be describing a form of materialism (or rather, energism), until the very end, when he mentions Spirit for the first time, as if it were an established fact. Though I don’t claim to understand Philip’s book, I will say that I didn’t recognize any new ideas that I hadn’t encountered in the works of better known philosophers. Philip’s contribution to the field reads more like mere hair-splitting of terminology rather than any unique view on the subject.

A real philosopher would no doubt get more out of this book than I, but would probably rather be reading Kant, Schopenhauer, Hume, Locke, or any of the other philosophers Philip draws from. For the curious armchair philosopher less well-versed in epistemology, I would suggest Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosphy, which is much more accessible in its delivery and more rewarding in its conclusions.
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Monday, May 22, 2017

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle



A delightful dozen
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, originally published in 1892, is the first collection of short stories featuring the world’s most famous detective. This volume contains the first 12 Holmes stories that were published in The Strand Magazine from June 1891 to July 1892, following the publication of two Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet (1887) and The Sign of the Four (1890). The stories included here may not be the absolute 12 best adventures of Holmes and Watson, but there are several here that certainly rank among their greatest cases. Overall, this is the best of the five collections of Holmes stories published during Conan Doyle’s lifetime.

The collection opens with “A Scandal in Bohemia,” which is famous for introducing the character of Irene Adler, perhaps the only woman who could have been a match for Holmes. Another choice selection, “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” has been the top-rated Holmes story in numerous reader polls, and Conan Doyle himself chose the story as his personal favorite. Personally, I didn’t find the mystery in that case all that baffling, but it is a great suspense story with delightfully spooky atmosphere. A few other cases, like “The Man with the Twisted Lip” and “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” are not too difficult to figure out, given the clues that Conan Doyle provides, but it doesn’t really matter because the storytelling is so good. What sets these adventures apart from those of so many other fictional detectives are the complex, well-developed recurring characters and the entertaining process they go through to follow each mystery to its conclusion. Even the supporting casts are well-drawn; clients and criminals alike often have rich back stories and compelling motivations for their actions. Of course, if its a baffling puzzle you want, there are plenty of ingenious crimes to be had as well. “The Red-Headed League” is one of Conan Doyle’s most original creations, a case so wonderfully bizarre one can’t help but laugh, while “The Five Orange Pips” is an example of a darker, more sinister murder case.

Although the Holmes stories have served as a template for countless imitators and subsequent detective literature, what makes the Holmes stories so wonderful is that Conan Doyle never allowed them to get formulaic. Each is unique in tone, approach, and plot structure. In the rich fictional world he created, the narrative possibilities are endless and unpredictable. Sometimes a client comes to Baker Street seeking help, and sometimes Holmes and Watson simply fall into a case by accident. In “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” Holmes starts out trying to a return a misplaced Christmas goose to its rightful owner, and ends up stumbling upon a jewel heist.

If you’re only going to read one Sherlock Holmes book, this should be it. The only other possible contenders would be A Study in Scarlet, which introduced the characters, or The Hound of the Baskervilles, which is Holmes’s greatest adventure in novel form. The short stories, however, with their concise focus on the puzzling cases and deductive detective work, come closer than the novels to the popular conception of Sherlock Holmes that one finds in the film adaptations. If you’re familiar with Conan Doyle’s works, then you likely already know how good this book is and should treat yourself by reading it again. I would go so far as to say this may be the best collection of short stories in the English language. When judged not only on literary quality but also on popularity, influence on subsequent literature, and prominence in the world’s cultural consciousness, I think it would be tough to argue otherwise.

Stories in this collection
A Scandal in Bohemia 
The Red-Headed League
A Case of Identity 
The Boscombe Valley Mystery
The Five Orange Pips 
The Man with the Twisted Lip
The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle 
The Adventure of the Speckled Band
The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb
The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor
The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet 
The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

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Friday, May 19, 2017

Adaptation by Mack Reynolds



Civilizing the interstellar diaspora
Adaptation, a novella by science fiction author Mack Reynolds, was originally published in the August 1960 issue of Astounding Science Fact and Fiction magazine. The story takes place in a distant future in which mankind has branched out from Earth to colonize other planets throughout the galaxy. After a thousand years of such colonization, human civilizations exist on numerous worlds but in different stages of development. Now, for the first time, the Office of Galactic Colonization sends out an expeditionary team to make contact with some of these civilizations. The goal is to help these extraterrestrial societies reach a level of modernization at which they can become productive members of the Galactic Commonwealth.

To this end, the ship Pedagogue travels to the Rigel system to examine two planets located there, which are referred to as Genoa and Texcoco. The former has reached a stage of technological and economic development similar to that of medieval Europe, while the latter is roughly analogous to the civilizations of pre-Columbian Mexico. Over the course of the long trip to Rigel, the scientists of the exploratory team argue long and hard over the proper methods for modernizing the two planets. With no consensus reached, the two opposing factions of the expedition agree to divide their forces into two teams, each of which will attempt to stimulate the development of one of the two planets. In this way, the mission becomes a competition between the two parties to see who can bring their planet to a more advanced state of development. The Genoan team decides to spur development by instituting a system of free-market capitalism, while the team on Texcoco opts to impel industrialization by establishing a form of totalitarian communism.

It’s not difficult to see this as a metaphor for the Cold War, with Genoa standing in for the United States while Texcoco functions as a surrogate for Soviet Russia. The clash between capitalist and socialist ideologies is a frequent topic of discussion in Reynolds’s writings. Here he portrays both systems in a cynical matter, quick to point out the deficiencies and faults of each while bestowing little praise on the merits of either. Both sides in this game of empire building are guilty of ethical transgressions. They are, after all, here to exploit the resources and populations of these two worlds, much like, as Reynolds seems to propose, the imperialist governments of Earth exploit the resources and labor of their own colonies and workers. While neither side is portrayed sympathetically, Reynolds clearly makes the Texcocans/Russians the more evil of the two, which is not too surprising given he was probably using the regime of Stalin as a model.

It’s fascinating to watch as these two societies develop over time. Every ten years the two teams meet on the mother ship to compare progress reports in a series of meetings that become more belligerent and militant as time goes on. While the scientists from Earth manipulate their planetary societies like masters in a chess game, the inhabitants of the two worlds are reluctant to play their roles as pawns. The ending delivers a surprise that the reader is unlikely to see coming.

Having read several of Reynolds’s novellas and short stories, I have found his work to be hit-and-miss, but Adaptation is one of the good ones. Skillfully combining high-brow sociological theory with low-brow pulp fiction entertainment, it makes for a fun and thought-provoking read.
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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

A Gun is Unloaded by André Stil



Suffers from middle-book-in-a-trilogy syndrome
A Gun is Unloaded is the second book in French author André Stil’s trilogy, Le premier choc (The First Clash). This volume was originally published in 1952 under the French title of Le Coup du canon. The trilogy focuses on the lives of dockworkers on the Atlantic coast of France in the years following World War II. These workers are struggling under what they perceive to be the American occupation of their seaport home. The Americans are unloading arms to be shipped across the country by rail to France’s former enemy, Germany, whom America wants to rearm to help protect western Europe from the Soviet Union. The dockworkers, most of whom are Communists, refuse to handle any of these arm shipments to Germany, as well as any weapons headed for Korea or Indochina. In retaliation for this partial strike, the dockworkers’ hours are drastically cut, plunging them into living conditions of abject poverty.

The first book in the trilogy, The Water Tower, ended with the laborers collectively leaving their squalid shantytown to take up residence as squatters in an unused office building. This second book picks up where volume one left off, showing us further how the dockworkers respond to the activity of the American military in their midst. Secret meetings take place among the workers to discuss tactics of sabotage and propaganda. There are moments of open defiance as well, like when they stand in solidarity to stop a local farmer’s land from being seized. The story takes the form of a series of vignettes in which we follow one character through three or four chapters. A young woman named Gisèle, for example, becomes romantically involved with an American soldier. Henri Leroy, the head of the dockworkers’ local Communist Party cell, meets with members of the railroad workers’ union to try to coordinate a plan of resistance. A Gun is Unloaded suffers from the same fault that many middle books in a trilogy share. While it serves the purpose of a bridge between the first and last volumes, the plot just kind of treads water. The story doesn’t really move forward until the final chapter, which sets up a promised climax in book three.

André Stil was the editor of the French Communist Party’s newspaper, L’Humanité. He does a great job of writing from the workers’ perspective and vividly depicting their living and working conditions in a naturalistic style is reminiscent of Emile Zola’s novels of social justice. A Gun is Unloaded has a few really memorable moments of profound pathos. Overall, however, there is a detachment to this second book that I did not feel with The Water Tower. The narrative switches from first to third person, often taking the form of stream of consciousness from a variety of characters’ perspectives. Stil employs a strategy of full immersion, treating the reader as if he were a member of the dockworkers’ community, intimately familiar with all the characters and their histories. Rather than increasing the reader’s involvement in the story, however, it makes it harder to understand what’s going on. Stil expects the reader to know the ins and outs of the dockworkers’ occupation, the organizational structure of the French Communist Party, and the entire history of labor strife that led up to the trilogy. If you don’t happen to possess such knowledge, you constantly feel like you have been thrust into a conversation already in progress, struggling to get your bearings and figure out what everyone is talking about before the chapter ends.

The third novel in this trilogy, Paris avec nous, to the best of my knowledge has not been translated into English. I was thinking of trying to read it in French, but now I’m not so sure it’s worth the effort. A Gun is Unloaded is a fine novel, but not nearly as compelling as The Water Tower.
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Monday, May 15, 2017

Oomphel in the Sky by H. Beam Piper



Plantation colonialism, but in space
H. Beam Piper’s novella Oomphel in the Sky was first pulished in the November 1960 issue of the magazine Analog Science Fact and Fiction. The story is part of Piper’s Terro-Human Future History series, meaning it takes place in the distant future after mankind has colonized numerous planets throughout the galaxy. For the most part, the stories in the series are only loosely connected, however, so despite references to the Terran Federation, no prior knowledge of the series is required to understand or enjoy Oomphel in the Sky.

The story takes place around the 28th century on the planet Kwannon, part of the Gettler star system. The Terrans (humans from Earth) have already established colonies and a military presence on Kwannon in order to exploit its resources. The planet’s main export is a “bio crystal” which grows from a native plant. These plants are grown on plantations run by Terrans, with labor provided by the planet’s native inhabitants, the Kwanns, a race of intelligent humanoids with blue-gray skin. The Gettler star system is a binary system, so the Kwanns have two suns. One of these suns, Gettler Alpha, is about to make its closest approach to the planet Kwannon. While this is natural phenomenon that occurs periodically, the Kwanns see it as the coming of the end of the world. As a result, the usually benign laborers rise up in a series of attacks on the biocrystal plantations, revolting against their Terran masters. Though the Terrans are able to suppress the attacks, more trouble may be imminent as Gettler Alpha approaches. Miles Gilbert, a news reporter, and Foxx Travis, a military officer—both Terrans—set out to find the reason behind the Kwanns’ erratic behavior and quell further rebellion.

Piper is great at creating fantastic worlds with believable cultures, governments, and industries. On the one hand the reader is fully immersed in a fictional universe, while on the other hand the inhabitants of this new world behave pretty much the way we do on Earth in terms of conducting business and war. This allows Piper to use the happenings on his fictional world as metaphors for political, military, and economic phenomena right here on Earth. He’s usually very good at pulling this off, but Oomphel in the Sky is not as successful as most of his work. A big problem with the story is that the plot revolves around the question of, Why are these Kwanns behaving so strangely? To the reader, a newcomers to this planet, it’s all strange. We can’t possibly know what normal Kwann behavior looks like, yet Piper to some extent expects us to know. He dazzles us with his visionary world, but he doesn’t properly orient us to it before he too quickly launches into the problem and resolution of his story.

The word “Oomphel” in the title is a term the Kwanns use to refer to the Terrans’ technological prowess. To the Kwanns, the workings of the Terrans’ advanced machinery is like magic, so they created a word to signify the inexplicable. The colonialism of the story is a little off-putting, since the goal of Gilbert and Travis is to pacify the natives for further exploitation. It’s hard to tell with Piper, however, whether he is condoning colonialism or satirizing it. With Oomphel in the Sky, the latter seems probable, given the interesting things it has to say about how colonizers use religion to subdue their subjects. As usual, he gets his points across within a story that’s fun and entertaining. I wouldn’t consider this one of Piper’s best novellas, but it’s still a strong entry in his impressive body of work.
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Friday, May 12, 2017

War God: Nights of the Witch by Graham Hancock



Makes fantasy out of history
I enjoy reading historical novels, and I have always been fascinated by the pre-Columbian civilizations of America, so I’m always on the lookout for any work of fiction dealing with the Aztecs, the Maya, or the Inca. When Graham Hancock’s 2013 novel War God: Nights of the Witch showed up as a Kindle Daily Deal, I gladly bought it and looked forward to reading it. The book was marketed as a historical epic of the Spanish Conquest, but that turned out to be somewhat misleading, and the more I got into it the more it turned out to be a major disappointment.

The story gets off to a bad start when, in the first few pages, a young witch named Tozi practices the art of magic. This magic is not an authentic form of shamanism or healing arts that might have actually been ritualistically practiced by the Native Americans, but rather real honest-to-gods wizardry like something out of The Lord of the Rings. Right away we are removed from the genre of the historical novel and transported into the realm of fantasy. Later, when the characters pray to their gods, it’s not just an internal dialogue inside the characters’ minds. The gods are real, and they directly influence the course of history. It’s not just the Mexicans who are communing with the spirit world; even the Spaniards receive visitations from St. Peter himself. Aren’t the ancient civilizations of America and their first clash with invaders from the Old World fascinating enough? Is it really necessary to dress up the story with a bunch of mystical mumbo jumbo?

Hancock’s descriptions of battle scenes are exciting and vividly rendered. He is clearly a competent writer capable of telling a story, but the creative choices he makes are rather annoying. The short choppy chapters, each ending in a cliffhanger, brought to mind the Choose Your Own Adventure books of my youth, and the level of character development is about the same. Also irritating is Hancock’s infantile fascination with bodily fluids. Obviously there will be blood in a book like this, but every time you turn a page it seems like someone’s vomiting or soiling themselves. Did Moctezuma really have irritable bowel syndrome, or did Hancock just make that up so he could work a mention of feces into every other chapter?

Probably the most bothersome aspect of the book is Hancock’s myopic depiction of the Mexica (commonly known as the Aztecs). All he shows us of their culture is torture, human sacrifice, and cannibalism. There was much more to their civilization than just murder, but Hancock doesn’t mention their philosophy, arts, sciences, mathematics, or literature. It almost seems as if the message he’s trying to get across here is that the Native Americans deserved to be conquered because they were merely brutal savages. By focusing solely on the murderous aspects of Mesoamerican culture, the conquistadors come across as liberators rather than conquerors. Though the Spaniards are depicted as violent and avaricious criminals, the reader can’t help but feel that they are intended to be the “good guys” in this story, come to save the Mexica from themselves.

Had the book been briefer, these offenses might not have been so irksome, but this novel is a long haul. The conquistadors don’t leave Cuba until halfway through the book, they don’t reach the Mexican mainland until about the three-quarters mark, and they never make it to Tenochtitlan. Surprise! It’s a trilogy! (At the time I bought the book, it was not advertised as such). I won’t be returning for book two.
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